Every now and then I need to read the book of Galatians. It was written to a group of Christians who had allowed that deep desire to prove themselves become a basis for the Gospel. God says we are saved by grace through faith, not through good deeds, law-keeping, or anything else we can do, but they had “fallen” from that. Their problem? They thought they had to maintain their standing before God by keeping God’s law. Of course, His laws are good, but their motivation was wrong. They were putting their faith in themselves, not the power of their Savior.
Paul wrote to the Galatians, first giving his own testimony: “But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me.”
His point was that God taught him, not anyone else. The Galatians needed to go back to the same source of truth, to the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures. They were confused by false teachers who insisted they must be circumcised and keep other laws lest the lose their salvation. Paul told them:
“Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery — to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.”
He heard the same false teaching but didn’t fall for it. His next words explained that the apostles agreed with his stand against the false teachers; those who were not Jews did not need to keep OT laws. If they wanted to prove that they were saved, it should be seen in their love for others, particularly the poor:
“And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised . . . . and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” (Galatians 1:15–2:10)
I understand what motivated those self-appointed teachers who perverted the gospel by preaching that faith in Christ is not sufficient; you must also keep the law of Moses. This idea of needing to add our efforts to Christ’s finished work permeates human hearts. Even today, entire denominations teach salvation by faith BUT if a person fails to keep God’s commandments, they are not saved. This legalism runs rampant even without false teachers. Human pride wants to establish our own righteousness by our own doing, even when we know better.
As the devotional writer says, the issue is not godliness or ungodliness, or what the believer does, or how the believer lives. The issue is the motive and attitude of the heart. Legalists are motivated by fear not love. They start looking at their performance and measuring their faith by it instead of by the saving work of Jesus. Legalists hope to honor God and be rewarded for doing their duty. Their spiritual disciplines are motivated by either fear of punishment or promise of reward, with both pride and shame in the mix. This vain effort is so ingrained that even the most godly believers can fall into its trap.
Jesus, You know my heart. Sometimes I slide away from the freedom of being loved by You into a sense of ‘I must do something.’ You call me to walk by faith in the same way that I received You. That is, I just keep admitting my sin and inability to save myself and keep trusting You for every detail, every ability, every obedience, even every breath that I take. Thank You for Galatians, and for reminding me and forgiving me every time my pride rears its ugly head and presses me to live by rules instead of by grace.